With a post-Castro Era looming on the horizon, the Obama administration should muster the political will to prepare the United States for February 2018, when neither Fidel nor Raúl Castro will remain at the helm of the Cuban state.
In 1960, when Cuba’s new first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel was born, Fidel Castro had already been leading Cuba for a year. Neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones had conquered rock-n-roll. Dwight D. Eisenhower ruled the United States, becoming the first of 11 United States presidents, including Obama, to apply the failed embargo policy against the Castro regime and the political project it represents.
But against the calendar, there are no victories. In 2006, Fidel Castro’s illness forced the first transition in the Cuban leadership since 1959. Raúl, then aged 76, replaced Fidel, who was almost 80. Despite the fact that it was a succession between brothers of the same generation, the presidency of Raúl Castro has had important consequences for politics and the Cuban economy.
Faced with the loss of Fidel’s charismatic leadership, the Cuban Communist Party began processes of economic reform and political liberalization in order to rebuild its capacity to govern under the new conditions.
In the last five years, the Cuban government has created an important institutional foundation for the transition to a mixed economy, symbolized by the encouragement of nonstate sector firms, and a post-totalitarian relationship between the state and civil society, symbolized by relaxed travel restrictions. With the election of the new Council of State on Feb. 24, the last phase of the transition to the post-Castro era began.
Castro was re-elected president, but for the first time a leader born after 1959, Miguel Diaz-Canel, became the second in command. Although this transition is unfolding with the same party and president in power, and is both gradual and limited, a new leadership and changing priorities are discernible.
Díaz-Canel is part of the network of provincial party czars who are very important in the implementation of the proposed changes, particularly decentralization. Having worked in central and eastern Cuba, the new first vice president has cordial ties with regional commanders of the armed forces, which, along with the Communist Party, is the other pillar of the current Cuban system. He is a civilian, the first in the line of succession to have little military experience. But he is steeped in the networks of power and well versed in the controlled management of reforms.
Challenges for Cuban and United States Leaders
If Cuba implements the type of mixed economy proposed by the last Congress of the Communist Party and establishes a new, more vital relationship with its diaspora and the world, it will also transform politically. With the economy and society changing, the political environment cannot remain intact.
The rise of market mechanisms and an autonomous nonstate sector will reinforce the new pluralizing flows of information, investment, and technology. The new social sectors will seek representation in the political arena. Citizens will have greater access to the Internet, from which civil society will benefit.
This does not imply a transition to multiparty democracy over the next five years. But even without regime change, economic liberalization will force an expansion of pluralism within the current people’s power system. Candidates for local elections could come from the new nonstate sectors, or previously unrepresented religious or social groups, and demand a transparent use of local taxes.
Political liberalization will probably start at the lower levels of government, allowing citizens to vent their frustrations at that scale. However, the pressure is sure to rise. Castro’s decision to limit political office holders to two five-year terms, at a time when the older generation is leaving power by attrition, will result in a less personalized and more institutionalized leadership that promotes upward mobility of new politicians in an orderly fashion.
In this new context, the U.S. challenge is to open a path for those in the regime who have an interest in backing more serious reforms. The United States should discredit the naysayers within the Cuban elite (and Washington’s as well) by showing what Cuba can gain through opening up its politics and society, rather than maintaining excessive controls.
The United States has more to gain by allowing its own business community to trade and invest in the emerging Cuban nonstate sector and engaging the new leaders in Havana.
The opportunity to redesign U.S. policy toward Cuba will not last forever. A failure to respond to Castro’s overtures for negotiation with Washington would be a strategic mistake.
The president can begin by taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” It would not be a concession to Cuba, since Havana has not been connected to any terrorist actions for at least 20 years.
Taking Cuba off the State Department’s list would also provide a framework for resolving the Alan Gross affair. This problem is currently intractable because of the false premise in Washington that Gross is a hostage of a terrorism-sponsoring nation.
The issue might become manageable if the two countries could negotiate a comprehensible package that would save face for both governments. Such an agreement could be the first step to stabilize a course of engagement and broad people-to-people contacts over the next four years—a critical goal, if the United States is to have some influence during the final transition to a post-Castro Cuba.
Arturo Lopez-Levy is a doctoral candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver. Courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus (fpif.org).